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SMART board weighs American vs. European rail cars

Rail car manufacturers made pitches to the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit District on Wednesday, hoping to sell directors on their technology as the deadline to choose a rail car nears.

One of the companies said it could produce the light-weight, European-style trains that directors envision running on the 70-mile commute line through Sonoma and Marin counties.

You had several presentations, you had several sales pitches, said SMART executive director Lillian Hames, who promised the board a staff recommendation at its July 15 meeting.

The board is choosing between heavy-weight, American-style rail cars that meet federal safety and pollution standards that take effect in 2012 and European-style cars that would require a waiver from federal railroad regulators. The European-designed cars could not run at the same time as freight trains.

Board members were disappointed with the ride quality of the only American-style train they tested, which is being operated in Portland, Ore.

Three companies made presentations arguing for the heavier American-style cars.

Hoping to allay fears about the cars ride quality, Siemens vice president Robin Stimson told the board the Portland car was made by now-defunct Colorado Railcar, was poorly crafted and that the car built by his company is a better alternative.

Representatives from Brookville Equipment Corp. of Brookville, Pa., and Nippon Sharyo USA of Arlington Heights, Ill., also made presentations of their American-style trains.

The only company at the meeting that said it would produce the lighter cars was Stadler of Switzerland, which makes the cars for the European market and recently branched into the United States.

It has made cars for a rail system in Austin, Texas, which is waiting for federal rail regulators to approve it for operation. It also has the contract to provide cars for a new system in Denton, Texas.

Marius Schmidt of Stadler said the lighter cars will meet all U.S. regulations except for crash and safety, which he said is addressed with an energy-absorbing crash system.

The board has set a meetinr for 12:30 p.m. on July 15 in the Sonoma County supervisorss chambers to make a final decision.

The board on Wednesday also adopted a strategic plan that acknowledges there is a $155 million shortfall over the 20-year life of the SMART tax, caused by declines in sales tax revenue because of the recession.

The plan, however, clings to the 2014 completion and startup date of the rail system, hoping to make up the funding gap with state or federal funds.

Hames also told the board that for the next two years, the tax provides enough money to do the design and engineering work.

The shortfall would not be felt until bonds will be needed to be sold to begin construction, when it is hoped the economy has recovered and tax revenues increase.

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